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The European Union and the nuclear non-proliferation regime; a story of strengths and weaknesses.

King's College London 2022.

The advent of the Nuclear Era and its echoes have inherently shaped the stability and the asymmetry of contemporary global and regional security studies. The long-term consequences of proliferation behaviour since the Cold War have determined the rules, restrictions, and frameworks of contemporary nuclear non-proliferation regimes. This perception is based on the idea that power is relational[1], which translates into the continuous need to develop international regimes that respond to both an international non-proliferation collaboration structure, while avoiding coercive approaches. The success of non-proliferation strategies relies on international institutions, agreements, and non-State actors focused on defusing the incentives to establish nuclear weapons. However, achieving such a balance remains to be seen, as several failures of nuclear non-proliferation strategy have been prominent. The purpose of this essay is not to analyse the actions taken to advance global non-proliferation policies but to critically examine the strengths and weaknesses of the current nuclear non-proliferation regime and the role of the European Union in it. To pursue this objective, we will first assess the current regime and the role of ‘effective multilateralism’. This will help us understand the role of context and how it affects non-proliferation efforts. Secondly, we will critically examine the strengths and weaknesses of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. This will allow us to argue that the current regime has, indeed, created a broader political context, but it is mainly based on moral pressure to achieve global non-proliferation. Thirdly, we will evaluate the overall role of the European Union in the current regime and its enforcement process. Such observation will illustrate how global collaboration is essential to pursue non-proliferation objectives, but it may come at a higher cost than expected due to an increasing lack of recognition.


Regimes can be defined as ‘implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations.’[2] When applied to nuclear non-proliferation, the concept of regime is directly linked to the institutionalised concept of power and its direct outcomes.[3]  In fact, regimes can be seen as ‘a pervasive characteristic of the international system’.[4] Thus, in order to analyse non-proliferation regimes, we need to understand its ‘inherently competitive cast of security concerns, the unforgiving nature of the problems, and the difficulty in determining how much security the state has or needs.’[5] Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the EU has been pursuing global efforts to tackle non-proliferation to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament, and the eradication of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The establishment of several treaties and agreements has proven that ‘regimes must constitute something more than just short-term expressions of rational self-interest[6], and that ‘effective multilateralism’ has been at the core of this configuration. The strategy of “effective multilateralism” and the choice to pursue collective security has been one the strongest assets of the current regime because it concerns the global order and the world system. Effective multilateralism is defined as ‘the development of a stronger international society, well-functioning international institutions and a rule-based international order’[7]. This means that international treaties and agreements are of paramount importance to the construction of a collective security system. The most important agreement to support the nuclear non-proliferation regime is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The objective of the treaty is to ‘prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology,  to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy [and] general and complete disarmament.’[8] This treaty is of paramount contribution, as it is the only legally binding multilateral commitment pursuing nuclear disarmament, as well as the only international treaty in which the five UN-recognized NWS (Nuclear Weapon States) agree to a common goal.[9] While the ratification of the NPT by the top NWS creates a sense of regime effectiveness, it may also be considered a hidden weakness, as it generates a sense of inconsistency between NWS and Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS).  Other important agreements have followed, such as the European Security Strategy or the Strategy against the Proliferation of Mass Destruction. They all pursue the strengthening of international non-proliferation mechanisms and the promotion of stable regional and international environments. Overall, effective multilateralism has been a resilient instrument in the expansion of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Another important strength of the current regime is its continuing effort to differentiate nuclear non-proliferation strategies from other more coercive treaties and organisations. This is the case of NATO, whose purpose is to cooperate through active political and military operations based on its ‘principle of collective defense’[10]. Another example is the International Convention for Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which provides international and domestic legal tools to criminalize nuclear terrorism[11]. Contrary to these, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the NTP are less focused on the use of political coercion and more inclined to conflict resolution approaches. By pursuing peaceful uses of nuclear materials, such as technology, and nuclear safety, the current regime is betting on effective multilateralism and the potential economic benefits of non-proliferation strategies.


While the structure of the current nuclear non-proliferation regime fosters the role of effective multilateralism and cooperation, this has not always translated into substantive influence in the regime itself. According to Krasner, ‘regimes must be understood as something more than temporary arrangements that change with every shift in power or interests’.[12] However, non-proliferation has varied according to fluctuating geopolitical contexts and its potential effect on global security. Thus, when considering the weaknesses of the current regime, we need to understand the complex dynamics of nuclear proliferation.


The first weakness to acknowledge is linked to a regime inconsistency. As Jervis pointed out, ‘zero-sum games are more present in security regimes than in most economic issues-areas.’[13] This is due to pre-existing power motivations that constantly seek to pursue political and economic interests. For example, the NTP stipulates that all members agree "non-nuclear" states should pursue only peaceful uses of nuclear energy and, in turn, nuclear states agree to reduce their stockpiles. The negotiation and power asymmetries are evident because there is a ‘greater emphasis upon the requirements of NNWS to uphold their commitment to nuclear non-proliferation, than upon the NWS and their obligation to disarm’.[14] Such inconsistency weakens potential nuclear non-proliferation strategies to ever be advanced and can underline the enormous gap existing between NNWS and NWS. Thus, ‘if the principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures of a regime become less coherent, or if actual practice is increasingly inconsistent with principles, norms, rules, and procedures, then a regime has weakened’[15]. The second weakness to underline is more epistemological in nature but reveals an important sustainability challenge of the non-proliferation regime. The existence of a Security Dilemma is evident and supposes an ongoing game where, ‘unless each person thinks that the other will cooperate, she/he will not.’[16] During the Cold-War Era, it was believed that states would be the proliferators, or at least the sole actors to bear nuclear accountability. This presumption still plays an important role in international security, where one state's gain in security often inadvertently threatens others[17]. Russia has been an important critic of the “state-level concept”, an IAEA approach to obtaining information from sources of other IAEA members.[18] This has led to claims that third-party information has enabled Western countries to manipulate the IAEA, and to serve specific political goals. Thus, the existence of a Security Dilemma proves that while the regime depends on ‘effective multilateralism,’ it cannot cope with the reality of geopolitical power asymmetries. The last critical weakness concerns the strategic differences between two major players: the EU and the United States. Contrary to the U.S., ‘the EU did not adopt a counter-proliferation strategy. Instead, it argued that global, and thereby European, security could be best guaranteed through global governance exercise by functioning international organizations and the rule of law. The importance of this distinction relies on the fact that the EU bases its non-proliferation strategies on conflict prevention, whereas the U.S. focuses on countering operations. Such security asymmetry may explain the rising doubts about the regime’s sustainability due to core tenets of non-proliferation enforcement and international compliance. While this may be a weakness of the regime, it can also be perceived as an opportunity for conflict resolution, as future geopolitical threats, such as cybersecurity, will require a mix of the EU’s ‘effective multilateralism’ and the U.S.’s ‘assertive multilateralism’.

The role of the EU in nuclear non-proliferation was not always clear and generally lacked political direction because ‘security and foreign policy were not initially part of the European integration project’.[19] The development of a non-proliferation regime responded to a cosmopolitan and instrumental approach where power could secure optimal outcomes as a whole.’[20]. Actually, ‘the EU did not have a clearly defined non-proliferation policy until 2003, […] in which proliferation was identified as the key threat to Europe’.[21] The EU is considered to be “an evolving entity, composed of numerous issue areas and polity networks”[22] which translates into a complex system of sovereign states with different degrees of actors, actions, and political accountabilities. It was through effective multilateralism that the EU aimed to counter deficiencies in its foreign policy, such as lack of cohesion, and its lack of legitimacy as a global actor.

 

Generally, the EU has played an important role as a non-proliferation actor. This is mainly due to its dominant institutional approach to nuclear weapons, which depends on containment policies’ [23], and an effective multilateral approach. However, the latter has created a sub-regime structure based on reciprocity and recognition. The EU’s multilateralist pursuit to strengthen the non-proliferation regime has been met with limited success due, in large part, to the EU’s lack of bargaining power within the NPT’s negotiation context.[24]  This would suggest that the EU has managed to create a non-proliferation dependency relationship based on the principle of reciprocity. The reason behind this is that “when states accept reciprocity, they will sacrifice short-term interests with the expectation that other actors will reciprocate in the future, even if they are not under a specific obligation to do so’[25]. The role of institutions such the AEIA and Euratom is to establish international binding frameworks to avoid nuclear non-proliferation, but the diplomacy behind this relies entirely on the EU’s ability to pursue incentives to cooperate by increasing the gains of doing so. While we would expect complete global collaboration, the current situation portrays a different view on the EU’s security challenges. While the EU’s contributions have been centred on the constructive effects of multilateralism, there are many factors affecting the role and recognition of the EU in non- proliferation. The first regards the EU’s selective approach to non-proliferation over disarmament. This has led to a virtual absence of policies directly focused on addressing proliferation while also focusing on some regions to the detriment of others[26]. This issue severely undermines the capacity of the EU as an active responder in the face of power asymmetries. The second factor that explains the EU’s lack of recognition is related to the strategies it has decided to pursue. The use of effective multilateralism has left the EU without a formal framework to address non-proliferation, and with a limited capacity for implementation. This characteristic of the EU’s approach could explain the constant gap between effectiveness and assertion. Overall, these observations point towards one core challenge; the EU has yet to acquire a high level political and strategic recognition as a non-proliferation actor. Thus, the effectiveness of the EU remains limited, and its actions and recognition have come at a higher cost.

 

 

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the world’s nuclear-armed states possess a combined total of nearly 13,500 nuclear warheads, of which more than 90 per cent belong to the U.S. and Russia.[27] The current non-proliferation regime has proven that multilateralism and cooperation are the best instruments for geopolitical diplomacy. However, many inconsistencies and asymmetries are still limiting the pursuit of global non-proliferation goals and peaceful uses of nuclear technology. More importantly, the lack of recognition of the EU in the current regime has portrayed multiple influential gaps, both regionally and globally. As nuclear non-proliferation challenges keep growing in complexity, it is crucial to evaluate the current weaknesses to turn them into future opportunities.

 

 

 

[1] Gregory Treverton and Seth G. Jones, “Measuring National Power.” RAND Corporation, Accessed June 17th, 2021. https://www.rand.org/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF215.html 

[2] Stephen D. Krasner. “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables.” International Organization 36, no.2 (1982): 185.

[3] Gregory Treverton and Seth G. Jones, “Measuring National Power.” RAND Corporation, Accessed June 17th, 2021. https://www.rand.org/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF215.html

[4] Stephen D. Krasner. “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables.” International Organization 36, no.2 (1982): 185.

[5] Roger Smith, "Explaining the Non-Proliferation Regime: Anomalies for Contemporary International Relations Theory." International Organization 41, no. 2 (1987): 253.

[6] Idem, 256.

[7] Sven Biscop and Edith Drieskens.  "Effective Multilateralism and Collective Security". IIEB Working Paper, No. 16, March 2005: 2.

[8] "Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons", United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (undated), accessed June 15th, 2021. https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/ 

[9] Dee, Megan. “The EU's multilateralist combat against the proliferation of WMD in the NPT: mirroring the Grand Bargain”, European Security, 24:1 (2015): 3

[10] “What is Nato”. NATO. Accessed June 18th, 2021. https://www.nato.int/nato-welcome/index.html 

[11] “Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism” Nuclear Threat Initiative, accessed June 18th, 2021. https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/international-convention-suppression-acts-nuclear-terrorism/ 

[12] Stephen D. Krasner. “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables.” International Organization 36, no.2 (1982): 186

[13] Idem, 192.

[14] Dee, Megan. “The EU's multilateralist combat against the proliferation of WMD in the NPT”, European Security, 24:1 (2015): 4.

[15] Stephen D. Krasner. “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables.” International Organization 36, no.2 (1982): 189.

[16] Robert Jervis. "Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma." World Politics 30, no. 2 (1978): 168.

[17] Idem, 170.

[18] Robert Einhorn, “Revitalizing non-proliferation cooperation with Russia and China”. Brookings Institution. January 2021. Accessed June 19th,2021. https://www.brookings.edu/research/revitalizing-nonproliferation-cooperation-with-russia-and-china/ 

[19] Kathrin Höhl, et al. “EU cooperative threat reduction activies in Russia”. Institute for Security Studies (2003): 9.

[20] Stephen D. Krasner. “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables.” International Organization 36, no.2 (1982): 200.

[21] David  Koepsell and Kateřina Staňková. "Non-Proliferation Regimes, Immoral and Risky: A Game-Theoretic Approach." International Journal on World Peace 29, no. 2 (2012): 63.

[22] Kamil Zwolski. “Unrecognized and Unwelcome? The Role of the EU in Preventing the Proliferation of CBRN Weapons, Materials and Knowledge”, Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 12:4(2011): 479

[23] David  Koeppel and Kateřina Staňková. "Non-Proliferation Regimes, Immoral and Risky: A Game-Theoretic Approach." International Journal on World Peace 29, no. 2 (2012): 63.

[24]Dee, Megan. “The EU's multilateralist combat against the proliferation of WMD in the NPT: mirroring the Grand Bargain”, European Security, 24:1 (2015): 3.

[25] Stephen D. Krasner. “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables.” International Organization 36, no.2 (1982): 187

[26] Clara Portela. “The Role of the EU in the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: The Way to Thessaloniki and Beyond”. PRIF Report No.65 (2003): II.

[27] “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance”, Arms Control Association, accessed June 20th, 2021. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Journals

 

Biscop, Sven and Drieskens, Edith.  "Effective Multilateralism and Collective Security ". [also IIEB Working Paper, No. 16, March 2005]. In: UNSPECIFIED, Austin, Texas. (2005)  (Unpublished)

 

Cronberg, Tarja. “No EU, no Iran deal: the EU's choice between multilateralism and the transatlantic link”, The Non-proliferation Review, 24:3-4(2017):243-259. DOI:10.1080/10736700.2018.1432321

 

Dee, Megan. “The EU's multilateralist combat against the proliferation of WMD in the NPT: mirroring the Grand Bargain”, European Security, 24:1 (2015): 1-18, DOI:10.1080/09662839.2014.94886

 

Jervis, Robert. "Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma." World Politics 30, no. 2 (1978): 167-214. Accessed June 24, 2021. doi:10.2307/2009958.

 

Koepsell, David, and Kateřina Staňková. "Non-Proliferation Regimes, Immoral and Risky: A Game-Theoretic Approach." International Journal on World Peace 29, no. 2 (2012): 63-83. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23266665.

 

Krasner, Stephen D. “Structural Causes and regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables,” International Organization 36, no.2 (1982): 185-205. doi:10.1017/S0020818300018920.

 

Portela, Clara. “The Role of the EU in the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: The Way to Thessaloniki and Beyond”. PRIF Report No.65 (2003).

 

Smith, Roger K. "Explaining the Non-Proliferation Regime: Anomalies for Contemporary International Relations Theory." International Organization 41, no. 2 (1987): 253-81. Accessed June 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2706662.

 

Zwolski, Kamil “Unrecognized and Unwelcome? The Role of the EU in Preventing the Proliferation of CBRN Weapons, Materials and Knowledge”, Perspectives on European Politics and Society, 12:4(2011):477-492, doi: 10.1080/15705854.2011.622962.

 

Websites

 

Arms Control Association. “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance”, accessed June 20th, 2021. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat

 

Einhorn, Robert. “Revitalizing non-proliferation cooperation with Russia and China”. Brookings Institution. January 2021. Accessed June 19th,2021. https://www.brookings.edu/research/revitalizing-nonproliferation-cooperation-with-russia-and-china/

 

NATO.  “What is NATO”. Accessed June 18th, 2021. https://www.nato.int/nato-welcome/index.html 

 

Nuclear Threat Initiative. “International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism”. Accessed June 18th, 2021. https://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/international-convention-suppression-acts-nuclear-terrorism/

 

"Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons", United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (undated), accessed June 15th, 2021. https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/ 

 

Treverton, Gregory F. and Seth G. Jones, Measuring National Power. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2005. https://www.rand.org/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF215.html

 

 

 


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